42 U.S.C. § 1983 Case Law Update: Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct 305 (2015)
Police officers are too often put in high stress situations that require quick decisions about what level of force to use against a dangerous suspect. This is particularly the case for police officers involved in high-speed pursuits. Qualified immunity is a defense available to officers as a shield from personal liability in cases alleging excessive force, provided the officer’s conduct did not violate a clearly established right of the plaintiff. In excessive force cases, an officer has qualified immunity from civil suit in his individual capacity if the court determines that either (1) the officer’s conduct does not indicate an actual violation of the plaintiff’s rights, or, (2) that the right was not clearly established. Many times, the second inquiry – whether there was a clearly established right – is pivotal to the case. A clearly established right is one that was so well defined by the applicable case law at the time of the incident that an objectively reasonable officer would have known that his conduct was unlawful.
The United States Supreme Court recently decided a case involving the defense of qualified immunity for a police officer who was taking action to end a dangerous high-speed police chase that resulted in the fleeing suspect’s death. In holding that the officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the Court reiterated that a “hazy legal backdrop” is all that is necessary to grant qualified immunity to police officers involved in high-speed pursuits.
In Mullenix, the Supreme Court reviewed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to deny a police officer qualified immunity. The case involved a high speed chase of Israel Leija, Jr. Leija fled in his vehicle when a police officer attempted to arrest him, leading officers on an 18-minute chase at speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour on highways in the Texas panhandle. During the pursuit, Leija called the Tulia Police dispatcher and threatened to shoot at officers if they did not abandon their chase. The dispatcher conveyed this information to all concerned officers in the area, along with a report that Leija may be intoxicated.
Officers not directly involved in the chase, including Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Chadrin Mullenix, responded to several locations to lay spike strips meant to disable Leija’s vehicle in an attempt to end the pursuit. As Mullenix approached the location where Leija would first encounter the spike strips, he formulated a different plan—shoot at the vehicle to disable it, as there were police officers in defensive positions near the placement of the spike strips that could still be easily targeted as Leija passed. Mullenix had no training in shooting to disable a fleeing suspect’s vehicle and had not previously seen it performed. Mullenix radioed one of the pursuing officers about the idea, to which he received a “10-4.” It was disputed whether he heard a subsequent instruction from his supervisor telling him to see if the spike strips worked before shooting to disable the vehicle.
Mullenix positioned himself on the highway overpass as Leija’s vehicle approached at approximately 85 miles per hour. He took six shots at the vehicle before it hit the spike strips and then rolled over two and a half times. Four of Mullenix’s shots hit Leija in the upper body, killing him.
Both the United States District Court and the Fifth Circuit held that Mullenix violated the clearly established law that a police officer may not “‘use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of harm to the officer or others.’” The Supreme Court, in reaching its 8-1 per curiam decision, reversed, holding that the lower courts’ inquiry into the qualified immunity analysis was too generalized. With this decision, the Court overturned the denial of summary judgment based on the Fifth Circuit’s finding that Mullenix’s reasonableness was a disputed fact, rather than a matter of law.
In reversing, the Supreme Court again stated that the qualified immunity analysis, while based on the particular factual issues of the underlying case, is ultimately a question of law to be decided by the court. An issue largely based on precedent, qualified immunity is still sometimes inappropriate when there is no factually identical case. However, qualified immunity was appropriate here because of the attenuation between the facts of the case and the underlying precedential principles governing excessive force. Without a precedential case close enough to the facts of this case, qualified immunity was appropriate for Mullenix. Both the Fifth Circuit and Justice Sotomayor’s dissent undervalued the importance of the precise factual scenario encountered by Mullenix, instead relying on the generalized rule that deadly force is only permissible where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious bodily harm.
Because “the relevant inquiry is whether existing precedent placed the conclusion that Mullenix acted unreasonably in these circumstances ‘beyond debate’,” a superficial application of the underlying principle governing permissible excessive force to the context of this case is not sufficient to ascertain if an officer would have understood that he was violating a clearly established right. In so holding, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the precedent guiding its decision and stated that the issue was not one of whether Leija’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated; rather, it was a determination that the right was not clearly established as to preclude qualified immunity for Mullenix.
The Mullenix holding was not a major shift in the law. Instead, the Supreme Court used this case to further establish that qualified immunity is warranted when the underlying case law provides a “hazy legal backdrop” instead of clearly establishing the violation of a statutory or constitutional right, leading courts to give police officers the benefit of the doubt in these high-stress, dangerous situations. As a result, the likelihood of prevailing plaintiffs in § 1983 excessive force chase claims is now less certain than even the underlying issue of whether qualified immunity is warranted in high-speed car chases in which methods of lesser force could plausibly be applied.